Budget no panacea for deepening crisis

na; mso-fareast-language: JA; mso-bidi-font-size: 12.0pt”>FINANCE minister Herbert Murerwa faces an unenviable task in crafting his budget which should be receiving its finishing touches this month.

Scheduled for presentation to parliament on October 23, a tradition is emerging where it in fact appears later. Expect it on a Thursday in mid to late November!

Murerwa is only too aware of the impossibility of his mission: to rein in spending that is fuelling inflation while at the same time satisfying his party’s increasingly desperate political needs.

Government’s voracious appetite for funds stems from its need to propitiate a local constituency and bridge a yawning gulf between income and expenditure. Hence ministries that should be modest in their needs receive allocations (called “votes”) that are difficult to justify.

What for instance has the Ministry of Foreign Affairs achieved in recent years apart from providing sheltered employment to people who would have difficulty finding employment in the private sector? Scarce foreign currency is expended on keeping Zimbabwean diplomats in a style to which they have become accustomed without in return serving any tangible national need apart from distributing Department of Information statements. Zimbabwe is today more isolated than ever despite large amounts spent on Foreign Affairs.

Old-guard apparatchiks like Simbarashe Mumbengegwi in London and Cain Mathema in Lusaka court rididcule by claiming that reports that people are starving in Zimbabwe are part of a British plot to discredit the country.

This is at a time when the government is actively seeking donor food aid.

Another behemoth, the Office of the President, consumes vast resources while serving the partisan needs of Mugabe and his followers. Part of its vote is not subject to scrutiny by the auditor-general on the grounds that it includes sensitive expenditures. Then there are the president’s extravagant travel habits which show no sign of curtailment despite the country’s predicament.

The President’s Office employs a host of ministers of state who would be hard-pressed to justify their salaries. And its Information and Publicity Department abuses public funds to pursue a vicious vendetta against the private press and subvert professionalism in the public media.

The Defence ministry traditionally comes second after Education as the largest consumer of public funds. Despite the prevalence of peace in the region it continues to add to its armoury while keeping the generals sweet. It is, like Foreign Affairs, a highly politicised ministry where the public interest comes second to Mugabe’s.

The health sector is in desperate need of funds to retain skilled personnel and procure medicines. Mugabe spoke this week about the “unequalled strides” the country has taken in health and education. He appears unaware those strides have been backwards as distortions in economic management have seen post-Independence gains subverted at a time when the HIV/Aids pandemic needs to be faced down.

More than anything else Zimbabwe needs an enabling economic environment. At present business is regarded as an enemy to be harassed and fined for trying to survive. Hostile political statements by the police this week will have added to the impression of a sector under siege by a vindictive regime

Murerwa can probably do more to incentivise the business sector beyond tax concessions and he can certainly contain monetary growth. But the key, as he recognises, is to curb government’s own free-spending habits.

This is where he will encounter the brick wall of a president and politburo who want to buy public support. That will include counter-productive price controls that compound the problems of shortages and inflation.

Murerwa can’t win. So far he has failed to convince his cabinet colleagues that economic recovery rests on improved governance and the reengagement of the international community. The gang around Mugabe has set its face against that.

So we should not expect anything new or dramatic from the budget currently under preparation. So long as the central issues remain untackled Zimbabwe’s crisis is set to deepen.

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